In control

09:36, April 15, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

Freedom of expression is a two-way street. Many fellow journalists may want my severed head on a silver platter like St. John the Baptist's for saying this in public, thinking I betray a bigger principle: uncensored access to the masses by an intellectual (unelected) elite. Assuming, of course, the "intellectual elite" includes them. You know, those with the right ideas, the right vision, the right agenda, the right political affiliation, and the right connections. Those in disagreement must be kept out! (Fuera!). Kind of like it was in high school for 'cool' people. In some places the right race or national origin is also required.

This enlightened crowd thinks there should be no filter, no censor, no control over what people read or write. Of course, this only applies to what is produced by them or their friends. Yet we all know there is control. Each country has national interests that it protects. It is hypocritical to criticize one and not the other for doing what all do: control the flow of information. A more kosher word is 'manage' information, for those with sensitive ears and ivory tower sensibilities. "Oui, c'est toi que je parle".

Some countries do the "managing" better than others. Some use overt violence, while others use subtle economics. An unemployed journalist has no audience and that's no state secret. Ask CBS' Dan Rather and soon Katie Couric. Those damn lies, those damned ratings. Please, forgive my French as I try to avoid turning into Peter Finch's character in Sydney Lumet's 1976 film "Network." "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," he said.

I do not defend the practice. I simply acknowledge it. Like most journalists I have been a victim at times. Others benefited by the free space granted that could have gone to someone else. Some say it is 'supply and demand' in the marketplace of ideas not censorship. No free lunch for anybody. If only it were true.

Everybody deserves compensation for their work unless you are a contributor to the Huffington Post, independently wealthy, Arianna Huffington, or all of the above. She just sold her news blog to AOL for 315 million U.S. dollars in spite of the fact she pays nothing to the majority of her writers. Abraham Lincoln should be turning in his grave. Who knew the war over slavery would be lost in Hollywood.

In other words, pure capitalism has been imposed on journalism. I believe journalism, journalists and the public suffers because of it. The assumption people would only fund content that supports their point of view and be bothered by exposure to different ideas goes against the interests of any nation, journalism principles and public discourse. No need to anger a reader that actually pays the bills is the consensus. Am I a journalist, capitalist pig or both?

You are reading these words not only because I wrote them in Los Angeles but because they were cleared for publication by editors in Beijing. There is nothing wrong or mysterious about it. Although an intellectual conspiratorial friend named Dan confides in me that he believes my subjects are chosen by China to propagandize their political agenda in the world. With friends like these, who needs more friends?

I choose my topics without input from the Middle Kingdom, but there is no evidence either way to prove that, I must report. Only my conscience, God and the Patriot Act are witness. But how do you convince a creative Hollywood "Limo Liberal" that the world he sees is a figment of his own imagination? This is especially true when they make a living projecting their political views on the real world as if it were their own private canvas. Next time he will visualize me as "Mini Mao."

Hard to believe there is no red phone on my desk with a direct link to the Central Committee. I am not a hologram created by the Communist Party in China to spread the word about the marvels of their political system. I have been critical, describing the Cultural Revolution as "repressive," arguing in favor of an intervention in Libya, which China opposes, and joking that political leaders in Asia dye their hair black to look younger like I do.

Actually, the Chinese have proven more tolerant to criticism than my liberal American friend, who may think there is a Black Hawk helicopter waiting in the backyard ready to take me at any minute to Pakistan. God, I hope he reads this.

Walt Disney was correct, "It's a small world after all." Let's be clear, though. No true writer or journalist condones censorship. I hate it, especially when the edit or rejection is based not on quality or accuracy but on politics or "political correctness." Lamentably it does happen all over the world - here and there - out in the open. It is the inherent double standard of freedom of expression. We print all the news we agree with, most of the time.

For example, the New York Times publishes an article questioning Chinese immigration to Suriname and its impact on local demographics, while ignoring that current population came from Africa as slaves during the Dutch colonial period. Simon Romero's well-written piece does not point out that South American economies have done much better than North American ones due to increased trade with China. Anti-Asian bias?

The issue for my friend is not if someone controls the stories I write —he is sure someone does — but who, how, where and why? It certainly cannot be true a Latino journalist like me makes editorial choices respected and compensated in China. No, it must be President Hu Jintao himself pulling my strings by remote control. I am beginning to wonder who is showing bias.

In some regions censorship is actually the least of two evils as journalism continues to be one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Journalists are killed with impunity for trying to report the news by powerful interests trying to suppress them. Most reporters assassinated because of their work recently are not in declared war-zones but in the urban areas of not-at-war nations with a high incidence of political and drug violence, such as Mexico and the Philippines.

Two of the top five countries where journalists were murdered last year are in Latin America — Honduras and Mexico — according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Iraq is the only one in the Middle East. War is not the main motive for these murders. The most lethal topics are politics with 48 percent, culture 32 percent and corruption 30 percent. In 2009, of 100 journalists assassinated, 33 were in the Philippines. It is a shameful intolerable record under any circumstance.

When you read the newspaper or watch a TV newscast, it is easy to believe Middle East/North African conflicts produce more censorship and journalists' deaths than relatively peaceful nations in the midst of social upheaval. Numbers prove otherwise. It is easier to portray leaders with global political and military might as evil in a simplistic black and white heroes-vs.-villains scenario than focusing on the real source of violence in our countries: extreme poverty in the lower classes and political corruption at the highest levels, i.e. the "L'etat, c'est moi" mindset.

An explosive combination well-known but underreported by mainstream media because the source of conflict is not in a distant foreign land among people who dress differently, profess a different religion or speak a different language but often next-door. Elected officials prefer to ignore reality to the detriment of citizens. "If it bleeds it leads" is a common saying in modern journalism. Simple basic ideas are easier to digest and market especially when accompanied by big color pictures and attention-grabbing headlines. Avoid challenging the status quo to keep receiving a paycheck.

Nowadays reporters are salespeople, not saviors. Not that they ever were. But to old-fashioned journalists like Edward Murrow, who opposed McCarthyism, and Walter "The Most Trusted Man in America" Cronkite, who opposed the Vietnam War, journalism was a sacred duty that brought with it social responsibilities. Today it is just another business. If you do not pay an entry fee, you don't get the news and remain uninformed and vulnerable. Personally, I miss Murrow and Cronkite. Today they would probably be self-financed bloggers.

It is one thing to be the reporter quite another to be the one the report is about. "C'est ne pas la meme chose, mon ami." I believe there lies a key in better understanding what goes on and reducing violence and misunderstanding that provokes deaths, between sides: journalists and public personalities. After all, they are the protagonists of the violence spiral that has left 545 journalists murdered around the world since 1992, especially in Third World countries. This is a tragic fact not a joke, which is why I take my friend's comment seriously, for some perception is reality.

"If you just got off the plane from Mongolia and dialed into the left-wing U.S. media, you might think Glenn Beck is the Antichrist. The hue and cry about Beck is downright hysterical. Why do they care? Beck isn't an elected official. He's not even a journalist. He's just a guy with an opinion," writes popular TV host Bill O'Reilly on the departure of his Fox News "compadre."

"Well, again, it goes to free speech. Many hard-core ideologues in both camps do not want to hear opinions other than their own. And if someone is successfully bloviating views that differ from their orthodoxy, they go ballistic."

Often those who write do not (nor do they have to) comprehend the impact their words have on the subject's lives, especially when it is inaccurate and loaded with the intent of destroying reputations for political gain. It happens everywhere. Or those who for whatever reason gain attention and believe we still live under a feudal system where democratic processes are theater, fame and fortune bestowed exclusively on those with the appropriate heritage, connections or versatile morals.

I was shocked to learn less than two months prior to the 2004 US presidential election a news program, "60 Minutes," broadcast a report on president George W. Bush based on false military documents sent by political opponents without any attempt to authenticate them in an alleged effort to influence the outcome of the election. It came to be known as the "Killian Document Controversy" named after deceased Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, Bush's commander. One would imagine being the son of a former President of the United States, former head of the CIA, and former U.S. ambassador to China would prevent the president from falling victim to media bias.

Perhaps it is idealistic on my part to believe, and defend, the idea that accuracy and transparent motives should be the engine propelling truthful "relevant" information reaching citizens, with the understanding that bias, like prejudice, comes from both sides of every argument. I think journalists should follow a higher calling because the work we do impacts the world in unimaginable ways - its consequences often irreversible and final.

Falsifying information and conducting witch hunts with the intent of character assassination and inciting violence have given our profession a bad name. Lamentably it has also cost many good reporters their livelihoods and lives, whether this takes place in Bahrain, Venezuela or the United States of America. The power of words resides in the resonance they have on readers not in the control we may, or may not, on how they are interpreted by others.

You may silence a single voice but the impact of an idea whose time has come, in the mind of the conscientious, will always survive and thrive regardless of attempts to muzzle free speech by the rich and powerful.

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.
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